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WHILE RECOGNISING ACCOMPLISHMENTS, IT EXPERTS SAY THE GOVERNMENT NEEDS A CLEAR DEVELOPMENT STRATEGY

New coalition to form broader IT policy

DESPITE the outgoing government's attempts to build up Slovakia's nascent information technology sector, IT insiders say that the new government needs to focus more on overall strategy to avoid falling further behind neighbours and western partners.
Since assuming power in 1998, the government of Mikuláš Dzurinda has pushed IT development through the programmes eSlovakia and Infovek, designed to develop school IT capacities, as well as Govnet and eEurope+, intended to establish a government network infrastructure and define broader state IT goals.
"Unfortunately, that is practically all," said Juraj Sabaka, head of the IT Association of Slovakia, who along with other IT experts has criticised the government for delaying some projects and leaving others unfinished.


Graph: TASR, Source: Sme

DESPITE the outgoing government's attempts to build up Slovakia's nascent information technology sector, IT insiders say that the new government needs to focus more on overall strategy to avoid falling further behind neighbours and western partners.

Since assuming power in 1998, the government of Mikuláš Dzurinda has pushed IT development through the programmes eSlovakia and Infovek, designed to develop school IT capacities, as well as Govnet and eEurope+, intended to establish a government network infrastructure and define broader state IT goals.

"Unfortunately, that is practically all," said Juraj Sabaka, head of the IT Association of Slovakia, who along with other IT experts has criticised the government for delaying some projects and leaving others unfinished.

"It is important that government projects are fully completed and are in line with an overall strategy, thus enabling the possibilities of synergic effect," Sabaka continued.

However, the election programmes of the four right-wing parties now crafting the next Slovak government place an emphasis on IT development, and particularly on using the Internet to improve quality of life, education, the business environment and communication between citizens and government bodies (see chart, page 6).

Having approved a law on electronic signatures in March, the government coalition is now expected to focus on telecoms market liberalisation, set for January 2003, and is considering lowering VAT on telecoms services and computer hardware.

The government is also planning to continue IT development projects like Infovek, aimed at supplying computer hardware and teacher training to schools, and eSlovakia, aimed at connecting all Slovak elementary and secondary schools to the Internet.

In addition, completing the Govnet project, designed to establish a network infrastructure for the Government Office, the President's Office, parliament and other administrative bodies, is expected to be a priority of the new administration.

However, experts warn that these activities require better organisation than they had in the past, and that state representatives need to decide upon a clear path to follow in order to make the IT policies effective.

"All the partial activities that the coalition parties are planning in their programmes reflect concrete needs that should lead to IT development in society, but to achieve these goals, a systematic approach is needed," said Jiřina Perényiová, executive director of the Association of Telecoms Operators.

Part of what is needed, continued Perényiová, is a simplification of government oversight of the sector. While every other country in the Visegrad Four has an IT ministry, executive competence in Slovakia is spread across eight government bodies, beginning with the Transport, Post and Telecoms Ministry and ending with the Statistical Office.

"Until now, telecommunications were handled by the Transport Ministry, while IT issues were addressed by the Education Ministry," said Perényiová.

"In practice, this means that key questions on the development of IT in society were not solved by the body that deals with the construction of telecoms infrastructure, but were assigned to the ministry that is the biggest 'client' of info-com services, that is schools.

"If Slovakia is to advance in the IT area, questions of development and telecommunications should be solved by one authority," she added.

Besides advocating that oversight of IT development should be carried out by one body, Perényiová also suggested that broader legislative reforms are needed in the telecoms sector.

"New legislation to harmonise Slovak laws with EU laws should be passed. Conditions for a transparent, competitive environment in the telecoms sector should be created to enable consistent liberalisation of the telecoms market. Other laws that have an impact on telecoms services, like those governing VAT, should also be amended."

The execution of the telecom law is another problem, she added, as a liberalised market cannot work properly if the supervisory body does not have sufficient authority.

"In this context, strengtening the powers of the regulatory body is inevitable," said Perényiová.

While the first Dzurinda government made strides towards adopting a national IT strategy by its acceptance in late spring of the eEurope+ programme - under which EU members and candidate states are to formulate national IT plans - experts emphasize that an overall strategy has not yet been presented.

"When the government approved the [eEurope+] policy of IT development, the strategy was being prepared but it was not presented for government discussion," said Sabaka.

"In Slovakia, [a plan] has not yet been approved, although all the surrounding countries already have one. A general view on the use of IT possibilities in the improvement of state functioning and building a knowledge economy is still missing.

"eEurope+ is only a document, and the road to fulfilling it is long. So far, I can't see any results," Sabaka added.

"Not only do the plans need to be improved, but they also need to be adapted to incorporate all priorities. Without that they are useless," said Perényiová.

"The most important part of all the projects in this area is control over their implementation. In four years' time we don't want to read about big plans for projects that should already be up and running all over again," she added.

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